In the waning seconds of Tennessee's 71-63 overtime win over No. 16 Georgia on Saturday night, senior Jenis Grindstaff dribbled out the remaining nine seconds of an up-and-down regular season a few feet from a place he could have just as easily been sitting - the UT bench.
Heading into this season, the 6-foot-2 guard averaged just 3.1 points a game over his career and saw both his role and minutes diminish under former UT coach Jerry Green.
While Green's teams earned four-straight NCAA Tournament bids, they had about as much heart as the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz. This year, the Vols have stayed driven to make the NCAAs for the fifth year. Nevermind the fact they finished the regular season 14-15 and 7-9 in the SEC, this team has the one attribute that can't be measured in a box score.
"I think our team just shows a lot of heart every time we step on the court," senior Vincent Yarbrough said. "A lot of teams would have folded and not pushed to get in the tournament or any tournament at this point. But we have enough character to come out (and play hard)."
If anyone embodies the Vols' emotional turnaround this season it's Grindstaff.
The gritty senior scored most of his 12 second-half points with an aching reconstructed left knee and a bloodied toe on his right foot after having his toenail almost entirely ripped off after a scuffle down low against one of Georgia's big men.
But Grindstaff's never been one to back down.
On the court, he drives to the basket against bigger players, as he did with 2:09 left in regulation to tie the score at 58, and again in overtime to give the Vols the lead at 62-60. Off the court, he's endured the loss of both parents and a season-ending knee injury his sophomore year that left him with John Stockton's hops after he used to dunk with regularity.
"He's showed a lot of heart," Yarbrough said. "Jenis is an inspiration to all of us. Just the things he's been through in his personal life. To look at a young man coming up without his parents, it's really hard. I couldn't imagine living life without my parents because they're just a vital part of my life."
While Yarbrough greeted his parents at half-court on Senior Day, Grindstaff was met by his brothers Chris and Shawn, his sister and his two-year old niece Emma.
"I wasn't too emotional because I feel all the support here," he said. "It would've been different if I didn't have anybody here. But I had my brothers here and my cute little niece here. It's hard to get teary-eyed when she's here."
Perhaps the Grindstaff clan (25 strong at Saturday's game) will be back in Knoxville this time next year. Grindstaff is in the process of applying for a sixth-year of eligibility from the NCAA, after having played only 14 minutes during the 1999-2000 season because of his injured knee.
After the game, he said there wasn't a much better way to end his career at UT than the way he did, but that doesn't mean he would go back and change things if he could.
"Not really," he said. "I thought I played pretty well and it's always great to go out with a victory, but I wish I could have been injury-free throughout my career. I think I could have done a little bit more."
Maybe. But it's hard to imagine a player who could anything more than Grindstaff when it comes to hustle.
Grindstaff plays with heart
Published: Mon Mar 04, 2002 | Modified: Sat Aug 06, 2005 04:08 p.m.